A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to Venice, Italy with my daughter. She’s living in Venice for a couple of months and interning at one of the museums. I went with her to help her get settled and to do a little sightseeing before her internship began.
I’ve been to Venice once before, in 2008, when our family spent some time traveling around Europe. My daughter had visited again in 2017, when she did a summer language program in Siena.
While there are a lot of things not to like about Venice—the crowds, the cruise ships, the tourist-heavy vibe, the menus with photos and the strong presence of English—there are some things that are well worth the hassle, and not just the charming canals, vaporettos, cappuccinos, and Aperol Spritzes. This recent visit was much longer than my previous visit and offered an opportunity for a slower pace and to spend some time on what might be considered second or even third tier sites.
One of the best things that my daughter and I did was to visit churches. We avoided San Marco with its long, horrible line. But, we visited a couple of the other more famous churches, like the Frari and Salute, and several churches that most tourists never even walk by, let alone go inside. These visits were wonderful, offering a quiet, meditative refuge from the push of tourists.
Unlike many churches throughout Europe, the churches of Venice have mostly retained their art. Instead of sending or selling the art to museums (or allowing it to be taken, I suppose), Christian art can be appreciated in situ. It’s a very different experience to consider paintings and art in their “natural habitat,” than to see them in a carefully designed museum exhibit.
After visiting several churches, I couldn’t help but to consider that the strong Protestant dictate to remove art and images from sanctuaries to be an unfortunate aspect of our protesting ways against Roman Catholicism. Sure, there can be a sense of the art and the stuff of Roman Catholic sanctuaries that seems clearly to have gone too far. It’s quite alarming, for instance, to encounter “relics” (pieces of saints or even drops of the precious blood of Christ) and tombs and entombed saints in glass. Yikes.
But, the art and the images were in many cases far beyond what mere words can describe or convey. In the Chiesa di San Polo, for example, an entire room is dedicated to a succession of paintings that depict the journey of Jesus from trial to crucifixion and then to entombment. It was an almost breathtaking experience to make my way around that room, gazing from painting to painting, considering the subject matter and focal point, and periphery, of each. While the story offered in words is powerful itself, it is extraordinarily different to appreciate the story through an artist’s eye.
In several churches, we were able to see works of a family favorite, Giovanni Bellini. It’s really Bellini who launched my daughter into a major in art history and now a second art museum internship. We, as a family, had visited a special collection of Bellini paintings in Rome in 2008 (because Margaret, at the age of 12, had become completely enchanted with the artist). But, in Venice, we were able to visit a few pieces, mostly in the form of Madonna and Child paintings, in various churches– where they belong.
Words are certainly important, and a significant dimension of our lives of faith. But, images are significant too, and not simply the images that we develop in our own heads. It’s worth reconsidering the role of art and images in our spiritual practice and in our worship. Images ought not only be relegated to the private. They ought to have a public place. Faith is not only an intellectual and mental enterprise. There is a dimension of faith, and the stories that help to frame and form that faith, that is enriched by art and images.
While I’m decidedly not going down the full Roman Catholic route, I think it’s time to bring back images and art. And, to bring them into a place of significance. We will not be able to gaze upon an original Bellini in our sanctuary in Hallowell, Maine. But, I have no doubt that there are other images, and pieces of art, that are worth bringing into our worship space– images that will enrich, challenge and enliven our faith.